Is Australia the world's most environmentally unfriendly country?

The Australian Government has asked for protections to be removed on a section of ancient Tasmanian eucalyptus forest. Photo / Getty Images, Thinkstock
The Australian Government has asked for protections to be removed on a section of ancient Tasmanian eucalyptus forest. Photo / Getty Images, Thinkstock

In Western Australia, endangered great white sharks are being slaughtered. In Queensland, dredging spoil is to be dumped on the Great Barrier Reef.

In Tasmania, ancient forests - harbouring some of the planet's tallest trees - are in danger of being stripped of their World Heritage listing.

Australians could be forgiven for wondering if the federal government they elected last September is the most conservation-hostile in living memory.

Critics warn that moves by Tony Abbott and his Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, will not only degrade the country's most outstanding natural assets, but make Australia an international laughing-stock. The UN has already threatened to list the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger" when its World Heritage watchdog committee meets in Qatar in June.

Compounding the right-wing government's apparent disregard for Australia's unique environment, say conservationists and scientists, is its resistance to any meaningful action to tackle climate change.

Mr Abbott has axed three key agencies, including one which supported private investment in renewable energy. So contemptuous is he of the science behind climate change - of any science, for that matter - that he has not even bothered appointing a science minister.

In Queensland, the health of what is widely considered Earth's greatest reef is being risked so that Australia can ship yet more coal to China and India, and fuel greenhouse gas-emitting industries. In Tasmania, the prize is timber. Precious wilderness and rainforest areas will be logged if the government convinces the UN committee to remove their World Heritage protection.

In Western Australia, Mr Hunt has exempted the state government from federal laws protecting great whites, so that it can go ahead with a cull. That was despite marine scientists saying there is no evidence that such measures reduce the number of attacks, and warning that apex predators are essential to the ocean ecosystem.

The cull, which prompted mass protests around the country last weekend, was announced in response to seven fatal shark attacks in Western Australian waters in the past three years. Baited drum lines have been set up a kilometre off popular beaches; any great white, tiger or bull shark bigger than 3 metres which is caught there is killed.

One letter-writer lamented in the Sydney Morning Herald this week: "This crowd [the government] have been in office for less than six months. Imagine the damage they can do in three years [the parliamentary term]."

The Great Barrier Reef already faces multiple threats: storms, warmer water, agricultural run-off and poisonous crown-of-thorns starfish. Now Mr Hunt has approved the expansion of a nearby coal terminal into the biggest port of its kind in the world - and the dumping in the reef's waters of millions of tonnes of sludge from the massive dredging operation that requires.

The health of the Great Barrier Reef is being put at risk as Australia tries to boost its coal exports. Photo / Thinkstock
The health of the Great Barrier Reef is being put at risk as Australia tries to boost its coal exports. Photo / Thinkstock

Scientists had urged him to veto the plans for Abbot Point, because of the risk to a host of marine life including endangered turtles and dugongs [sea cows]. Tourism operators fear the impact on their business, and on Australia's image abroad. But the country intends to triple its coal exports by 2030 - and Abbot Point, along with Gladstone, another port near the reef, are key to that vision.

At the opposite end of the country - in a move which the leader of the Australian Greens, Christine Milne, says will make Australia "a global laughing-stock" - the government has asked the UN's World Heritage Committee to de-list 74,000 hectares of the wilderness and rainforest for which Tasmania is internationally renowned.

Mr Hunt claims the area - among 170,000 hectares listed only last year, at the request of the previous Labor government - is degraded as a result of being logged, and should not have been listed. But that is disputed by, among others, Peter Hitchcock, an international consultant on world heritage values, who says about 90 per cent of it is pristine.

Mr Hitchcock told The Australian that the forests in question were "outstanding by any stretch of the imagination". According to Environment Tasmania, a leading conservation group, they are part of a unique tall eucalypt ecosystem - the southern hemisphere's equivalent of California's redwoods, with some trees more than 400 years old and up to 100 metres high.

Even Tasmania's timber industry opposes the move, because the 170,000-hectare listing was the centrepiece of a "peace deal" struck between the industry, unions and green groups in 2011 after decades of warring over the forests.

If the UN committee does brand the reef as "in danger", Australia will join 32 other countries with World Heritage sites in that category, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Syria, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic. But while conservationists are tearing their hair out, the government seems to care little about the international embarrassment.

It ought to care about the impact on tourism, which adds more than $42bn (NZ$45.8bn) a year to Australia's Gross Domestic Product. Like the reef, Tasmania's forests are a major draw.

In Western Australia, killing sharks is supposed to persuade tourists that it's safe to visit the state and swim off its beaches. However, Richard Branson - one of a number of high-profile figures to criticise the cull - believes it will have the opposite effect.

Interviewed on Australian radio last week, he said: "You're advertising a problem that doesn't exist, in a major way, and you're deterring people from wanting to come to Perth and your beautiful countryside around it."

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott gestures as he speaks during a session of the World Economic Forum. Photo / AP
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott gestures as he speaks during a session of the World Economic Forum. Photo / AP

- UK Independent

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